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Sucker zapper

The sound was similar to pebbles raining down on a tin roof, but the rat-a-tat-tat didn’t last long. Then it started again and quickly quit.

My friend couldn’t figure out where the noise was coming from until I pointed out a small bird gripping a board that supported the woodshed’s tin roof.

The bird had black and white markings on its wings and head with bright red feathers on the top of its head and under its bill. Every now and then it would rattle its sharp, pointed black beak against the tin.

Its call sounded like a tiny dog’s squeaky toy.

Although I initially thought it was a woodpecker, my birdy friend identified it as a red-naped sapsucker. Sapsuckers are relatives of woodpeckers. They poke small holes into certain trees with their sharp beaks. When sap flows in to protect the hole made by the bird, the sapsuckers lick it up with tiny tongues.

It’s similar to the way humans collect sap from maple trees to make maple syrup. Aspen, birch, pine and willow trees are the sapsuckers' favorite trees to drill. They live in the western United States, Mexico and a small portion of Canada.

Living to the east of the red-naped sapsucker is its cousin the yellow-bellied sapsucker. To the west, along the Pacific Coast, lives the red-breasted sapsucker. Until 1983, scientists thought they were all the same type of bird and called them all yellow-bellied sapsuckers.

Larger woodpeckers may live for 20 to 30 years, while smaller ones live only four to 12 years. One red-naped sapsucker that was caught and marked with a tiny band in Wyoming was almost 5 years old when captured again in 2011.

— Brett French,

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